Friday, December 28, 2012

2012 Ultimate Music Megapost: Top 50 Songs of the Year, The Top Twenty

Best-of-2012

Listen on Spotify

20. The Killers – “The Way it Was”

Say what you want about The Killers, the band the can formulate a story and paint a picture. The picture in “The Way it Was” is a drive through the Nevada desert. Brandon Flowers stretches his vocals in trademark style, and “The Way it Was” explodes into one of the better Killers tracks in years.

19. The Shins – “Rifle’s Spiral”

When James Mercer broke off to do Broken Bells with Danger Mouse for a small period of time, some wondered if the Shins were done. Instead the Shins come back with songs like “Rifle’s Spiral”, carrying with it all the feeling of a Shins song, but all the electronic touches of Broken Bells.

18. Band of Horses – “Slow Cruel Hands of Time”

Band of Horses may have made me physically sad with how average their new album was, but “Slow Cruel Hands of Time” breaks that mold for blissful 4 minutes. The song is a nostalgic and dreamy, looking back at a town once known so well, but now unfamiliar. As someone who has moved along from their hometown, this is a song that speaks to me.

17. Gotye – “Bronte”

I’m cheating a little on this one, but Gotye’s album didn’t really hit America until 2012. “Bronte” is slow and smooth, featuring Wally DeBacker’s falsetto rising softly over strings and quiet drums. It’s a relaxing song, and contrasting this one with Gotye’s massive hit “Somebody That I Used to Know” shows his talent and range.

16. Freelance Whales – “Follow Through”

Unlike anything on their much more immediately accessible debut album, “Follow Through” announces early in the new album that things will be different. There’s a smoke-like haze that clouds the beginning of the song, and an 80’s-ish beat that joins the synths. This is no banjo-and-xylophone show like their early songs, but “Follow Through” still retains the perfect handle on melody that Freelance Whales possess, all while ditching some of the elements that left them criticized as being Ben Gibbard wannabes.

15. Imagine Dragons – “It’s Time”

Leading the modern rock side of this blog is Imagine Dragons, probably the song that my friends will find the easiest to love the fastest. Emerging from the ear-catching dulcimer and featuring some solid synth work, “It’s Time” is a crossover rock star: good enough for Glee, and great enough for me to rock out to without shame.

14. Amarante – “No Return”

I could have picked any number of Amarante songs after “Lover’s Song” and “Snow Storm” came into my life, but I’ll instead stick with my first love: “No Return”. Showing their flair for indie folk with a focus on creating detailed, unique music as the backdrop, Amarante is this year’s Mimicking Birds or William Fitzsimmons. “No Return” will get stuck in your head for days, and if you’re like me you’ll own the album ten minutes later.

Click Here for Link to Track

13. First Aid Kit – “Emmylou”

I’d spend more time wondering why I’m in love with “Emmylou” if so many other bloggers weren’t pasting it all over their year-end lists as well. “Emmylou” has a folk-country element not all unlike a female version of Fleet Foxes. It also has this heart to it that is difficult to pin down. You might be surprised to find that a Swedish sister duo singing old school country songs can get to you, but it did for me, so give it a try.

12. Bear in Heaven – “Reflection of You”

If bedroom electronica was the main theme of 2012 (Purity Rings, Grimes, etc.), then 80’s throwbacks are a close second. I usually don’t find anything to love in the synth-laden, reverby, and 80’s beat marriage, but “Reflection of You” is a big exception. The key is the infectious chorus and bridge. “Look in my eyes/You will see/the reflection of you” they sing, in one of the most sing-alongable lines of the year.

11. Ellie Goulding – “My Blood”

By now you know I’m a big proponent of Ellie Goulding being an exception to many current female pop artists. The perfect example is “My Blood”, rising out of simplicity to an anthemic chorus over a gorgeous piano line. It’s her best song to date.

10. Walk the Moon – “I Can Lift a Car”

The funnest song of the year belongs to Walk the Moon, a fantastic live act with energetic indie rock jams like “Anna Sun” that have made waves in alt rock this year. “I Can Lift a Car” is a personal favorite, lyrics, and playful singing style. Not only is it one of most easily and thoroughly enjoyable songs of the year, it’s also one of the best.

9. Passion Pit – “Take a Walk”

Not too many songs can work in themes like pension funds, recession, immigration, markets, taxes, and determination into such a fun and forward-moving song. Instead of dealing with the subject with the tone of doom, Passion Pit instead stays almost optimistic, providing the head-clearing advice so many of us need: take a walk.

8. Active Child – “Hanging On”

I barely understood why I fell in love with this song earlier this year, and I barely understand now, but the honest truth is I love it all the same today. Dreamy, ethereal, falsetto-ed. Those are some of the words than can describe “Hanging On”. But the song is also incredibly moving, with some true emotion lurking beneath the surface. Have some patience with it, and maybe you’ll be playing it loudly too.

7. Paul Banks – “The Base”

Paul Banks, the face of Interpol, one of America’s best alt rock bands, brings us “The Base” from his new solo album, and it’s as good or better than most any Interpol song across their outstanding discography. Unlike some of the other songs that have graced the list, “The Base” isn’t so much about stirring any kind of emotional response, it’s simply about sounding like an amazing rock song. Banks’ deep vocals create a dark mood, and the instrumentation soars.

6. Yeasayer – “Fingers Never Bleed”

Yeasayer have developed a knack for some great experimental alternative rock that brings both heavy doses of unique qualities and heavy doses of melody. The result are songs equally pleasing to listen to as they are unlike anything else in your collection. “Fingers Never Bleed” is a perfect example. Slip on a pair of headphones for the crackling beginning, or check out the dissonant horn for something a little different. But also notice the almost pleasant chorus over an outstanding keyboard arrangement.

5. Perfume Genius – “Take Me Home”

Stunning in its simplicity and raw emotion, Perfume Genius touch a nerve with the ultra-personal “Take Me Home”. At times Perfume Genius’ troubles and introspection can border on disturbing, and his album can leave you uncomfortable. But when he bares his soul, the tremors of his voice on “Take Me Home” can strike a chord, and this track has been one of the most consistently played songs of the year for me.

4. Minus the Bear – “Diamond Lightning”

Minus the Bear are the makers of two of my favorite albums of all time in “Menos del Oso” and “Planet of Ice”, and those two albums cemented the band as a go-to recommendation. Despite being slightly let down by their last two albums, they still produce good single tracks, and you shouldn’t take it lightly when I say “Diamond Lightning” is possibly their best song yet. Using guitar like only they do, but putting together the most perfect and melodic chorus since “Pachuca Sunrise”, this track borders on perfection.

3. Sufjan Stevens – “Justice Delivers Its Death”

Despite its placement on a massive Christmas collection, Sufjan has done it again. And if you dismiss his album as an unnecessary group of holiday weirdos, you’ll miss out on “Justice Delivers Its Death”, one of Sufjan’s best tracks ever, and that’s saying a lot. Building out of plucked guitars and a soft piano, Stevens’ voice cuts softly and deeply like it does when he’s at his best. The lyrics, as always with Sufjan, cut to the heart. When he delivers a line like “Oh I’m getting old/I’m getting old/Everyone wishes for youth”, he whispers it in a manner that no other artist in music today can do. Amongst a long line of songs that rank as some of the best of, literally, all-time (“Casimir Pulaski Day”, “Futile Devices”, “Concerning the UFO Sighting Near Highland, Illinois”), “Justice Delivers Its Death” stacks up right with them, and that’s high praise indeed.

2. Grizzly Bear – “Yet Again”

Grizzly Bear are probably the best band today sitting at the top of their game in the prime of their careers. New album “Shields” is one for the ages and its best song “Yet Again” has zero flaws. Vocally, “Yet Again” is some of those most heartfelt yet, and when they sing “Take it all in stride” they sound almost wise. But “Yet Again” goes beyond vocals; just listen to the music. Such a simple beginning, the Grizzly Bear-ish guitars over the drums. Then comes the piano and more guitar and the perfect background vocals. By the time the chorus hits (one of 2012’s best music moments) and the electronic elements come in, the song is already amazing. Ending with some experimental flourishes that come together almost symphonically, “Yet Again” brings together just about everything I love about music into one song.

1. The Shins – “Simple Song”

Sometimes I joke around with my wife or friends about always seeking after that “insta-four star” song, the kind of song that you know after the first listen will be receiving repeated plays for years to come. For the first time since MGMT’s “Time to Pretend” or LCD Soundsystem’s “All My Friends”, both roughly half a decade ago, I experienced that cathartic moment when I knew I might have a five-star song after just one listen. Of course, it helps that The Shins have long been established as my go-to “favorite band”. Their lo-fi early days cemented “Caring is Creepy” and “New Slang” into a nostalgic and permanent place in my heart. I named by blog “The Past and the Pending” after a song by them. Their next two albums soundtracked definable periods in my life. When The Shins momentarily took a break and James Mercer created Broken Bells with Danger Mouse, I lamented the loss of the Shins while hoping that Mercer would continue creating. Broken Bells was a more electronic undertaking, whereas The Shins had always been a little more mellow and guitar-based, despite the expanse of their sound on third album “Wincing the Night Away”. When The Shins announced their new album, there was a sense of wonder about what this new album would sound like. The answer, to my excitement, is that the new album combined the best of, well, everything. Of course, they didn’t do that on every song. Although the album was spectacular (#2 on the year), the best of the best was “Simple Song”, a song that acts as the coalescent embodiment of everything James Mercer, Broken Bells, and The Shins have done so far. Musically, the song is mostly Broken Bells-ish, hitting electronic notes that The Shins never approached. Feelings-wise and lyrics-wise, the song is decidedly, purely The Shins. But a new element is added: the darkness that lingered behind both the Broken Bells project and “Wincing the Night Away” is gone, replaced with a sense of sunny optimism despite trials. For Mercer, it seems like he’s never felt more comfortable in his own skin. Analysis of the moments leading up to this new album and this song aside, the truth is that the song is also just plain awesome. There’s the skiddish guitar line, the oh-ah background, and of course the pure, simple, wonderful piano, an instrument not seen in Shins work before. And when Mercer sings “I know that things can really get rough/when you go it alone” over that piano line, it’s as close to musical perfection as I can ever hope to hear.

Honorable Mentions

  • A Boy & His Kite – “Cover Your Tracks”
  • Absofacto – “On a Ladder Leading Nowhere”
  • Alabama Shakes – “Hold On”
  • Alex Clare – “Too Close”
  • Amarante – “Snow Storm”
  • Amarante – “Lover’s Song”
  • Anais Mitchell – “Shepherd”
  • Animal Collective – “Applesauce”
  • The Antlers – “Drift Drive”
  • Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti – “Only in My Dreams”
  • Avicii – “Levels”
  • Band of Horses – “Long Vows”
  • Band of Horses – “Heartbreak on the 101”
  • Beach House – “Lazuli”
  • Beach House – “Other People”
  • Bear in Heaven – “Sinful Nature”
  • Bloc Party – “Day Four”
  • Cat Power – “Cherokee”
  • Dark Captain Light Captain – “Robot Command Centre”
  • Divine Fits – “Would That Not Be Nice”
  • Divine Fits – “The Salton Sea”
  • Eve 6 – “Lost & Found”
  • Father John Misty – “Nancy From Now On”
  • First Aid Kit – “The Lion’s Roar”
  • Frank Ocean – “Thinkin Bout You”
  • Frank Ocean – “Pink Matter”
  • Freelance Whales – “Aeolus”
  • Freelance Whales – “Winter Seeds”
  • fun. – “Why Am I the One?”
  • Gotye – “Save Me”
  • Grimes – “Genesis”
  • Grizzly Bear – “Speak in Rounds”
  • Grizzly Bear – “Gun-Shy”
  • How to Dress Well – “Cold Nites”
  • Imagine Dragons – “Radioactive”
  • Keane – “The Starting Line”
  • The Killers – “The Way it Was”
  • The Killers – “Deadlines and Commitments”
  • Lana Del Rey – “Ride”
  • Lotus Plaza – “Monoliths”
  • Lower Dens – “Propagation”
  • The Lumineers – “Ho Hey”
  • Matchbox Twenty – “I Will”
  • Minus the Bear – “Heaven is a Ghost Town”
  • Muse – “The 2nd Law: Unsustainable”
  • Neighbors – “Hooligans”
  • Neon Trees – “Everybody Talks”
  • Opus Orange – “Crystal Clear”
  • Passion Pit – “Love is Greed”
  • Patrick Watson – “Adventures in Your Own Backyard”
  • Port St. Willow – “Amawalk”
  • Purity Ring – “Crawlersout”
  • Purity Ring – “Fineshrine”
  • Shearwater – “You As You Were”
  • The Shins – “It’s Only Life”
  • The Shins – “September”
  • The Shins – “For a Fool”
  • The Shins – “40 Mark Strasse”
  • Snow Patrol – “New York”
  • Snow Patrol – “This Isn’t Everything You Are”
  • Tame Impala – “Feels Like We Only Go Backwards”
  • Walk the Moon – “Anna Sun”
  • Walk the Moon – “Jenny”
  • The xx – “Try”
  • Yeasayer – “Blue Paper”
  • Yeasayer – “Henrietta”

Thursday, December 27, 2012

2012 Ultimate Music Megapost: Top 50 Songs of the Year, 35-21

Best-of-2012

Listen on Spotify

35. fun. – “Some Nights”

Pop rock met alternative rock when fun., fronted by former lead singer of The Format, Nate Ruess, burst into the Billboard charts. If you’d have told me that one day The Format’s remnants would land two top ten singles (including a #1 single) and six Grammy noms, I’d have thought you were crazy. But with rousing, catchy, undeniably loveable songs like “Some Nights”, success is warranted. This song is impossible to hate, emerging out of layered vocals and snare drum as a sort of call to arms.

34. James Vincent McMorrow – “Ghosts”

Indie folkster James Vincent McMorrow first hit my ears with “We Don’t Eat” last year, and now he’s found himself on the Twilight soundtrack and in crucial scenes in one of the biggest grossing movies of the year. The success is warranted, as McMorrow’s breathy and naturally moving voice meets a dark and moody vibe, and becomes his best song to date. Perfect for Bon Iver fans.

33. Eve 6 – “Pick Up the Pieces”

My favorite part about having my own blog is I can pick whatever I want. That’s right, I have useless power!! Eve 6 was a high school and college favorite, but then they dropped off the map. I was one of the few who gave their new album a chance, and it wasn’t very good, save for tracks like “Pick Up the Pieces”. The protagonist of the track: a troublemaking male, loved only by his mother (“She thinks about you often/she has no idea you’re rotten”), trying to make good, struck me as a character strangely foreign to music these days. Eve 6 serves up with the classic softer touch, and it’s a gem.

32. Santigold – “Disparate Youth”

Reviews may have been mixed on Santigold’s long-awaited second album, but there’s been no denying that “Disparate Youth” is a killer track. Melding styles like only Santigold can, “Disparate Youth” rolls over layers of synths and drums, creating a groove partly alt rock, partly R&B, and fully Santigold.

31. Of Monsters and Men – “Dirty Paws”

The folksters from Iceland get their outstanding album kicked off the right way with “Dirty Paws”. The song is very forward moving, and the breakout at 0:56 shows why this band made some waves in 2012.

30. Frank Ocean – “Pyramids”

Frank Ocean was featured heavily in 2011’s list, but 2012 was definitely Ocean’s breakout year. His universally acclaimed album Channel Orange hit the big time. Ocean causes some divergent opinions for sure, but it’s hard not to be impressed with “Pyramids”, a truly unique alternative-meets-R&B track. “Pyramids” is 9:53 long, without filler. It features a John Mayer guitar solo, enough currency for the pop charts, and enough experimentalism to appease the massive indie following. It’s thoroughly unique and thoroughly wonderful.

29. Lower Dens – “Brains”

A few months ago I bought the full Lower Dens album simply after hearing “Brains” for the first time. It was a hunch buy I consider worth it, but nothing on their album topped “Brains”. It practically builds from the first note. And it keeps building. “Brains” is a five minute long cathartic experience.

28. Moonface – “Quickfire, I Tried”

Sometimes it’s hard to place a song that’s currently the flavor of the week into a list, but I’ll slip it right into the middle. Moonface’s dark aura is perpetuated throughout their entire album, but it’s on “Quickfire I Tried”, when the light piano breaks through, that they hit their pinnacle.

27. Snow Patrol – “Called Out in the Dark”

Maybe I’m stubbornly stuck on Snow Patrol, but I have no shame admitting I’ve now liked every single album they’ve released. On their new album (very late 2011, I’ll admit), Snow Patrol’s best track is the dense, hazy “Called Out in the Dark”, featuring synths and swirling electronics.

26. Muse – “Supremacy”

“Supremacy” gets Muse’s new album kicked off right, rising from operatic vocal drama and strings into a sweeping middle and a hard-hitting conclusion. It’s vintage Muse, all snare drum and guitar solo and Broadway and horns and rock, and will please fans both new and old.

25. Royal Teeth – “Wild”

I fell in love with Royal Teeth in all of about one listen. The song has a wonderful summer quality, and will have you singing along in no time. Sometime it doesn’t hurt to stop being experimental for a second and just be fun, and this song does it right.

24. Grizzly Bear – “A Simple Answer”

The first of two entries from Grizzly Bear’s Best of the Year album “Shields” is “A Simple Answer”, a forward moving and meticulously developed track that sounds simple enough at the onset. Listen closely though, because so much more going on here than first meets the ear.

23. Passion Pit – “Constant Conversations”

Passion Pit is at home when their music is soaring, but one of their most moving and surprising pieces of music on their heartbreaking album is “Constant Conversations”. The song plays with a beat like a slow jam, and the lyrics are like an apology. “I never want to hurt you baby/I’m just a mess with a name and a price/and I’m drunker now than before they told me drinking doesn’t make me nice”.

22. Divine Fits – “Flaggin’ a Ride”

We didn’t get any new Spoon this year, but Britt Daniel, the frontman for independent music’s most consistent band, still finds his way into 2012 by co-fronting Divine Fits with Wolf Parade’s Dan Boeckner. The best track is the very Spoon-ish “Flaggin’ a Ride”, riding trademark percussion and guitar into one of the year’s best jams.

21. Young the Giant – “Empire Ants”

Out of left field comes this one, first witnessed on MTV’s Unplugged. Young the Giant are one of the best things going in alternative rock right now, and although I missed out on getting them onto the 2011 list, they make their way onto 2012’s with a brilliant cover of this Gorillaz song. Stick around for the breakdown. It builds until the middle, and around 2:30 breaks into one of the best portions of any song all year long. It’s a must listen, even if you can’t buy it. (This song is not on the Spotify list because it’s not available)

Friday, December 21, 2012

2012 Ultimate Music Megapost: Top 50 Songs of the Year, 50-36

Best-of-2012

Welcome to the beginning of the big list! Click the Spotify link below to listen to the first 15 songs on Spotify, and subscribe to keep tabs until the entire top 50 is compiled. Hope you enjoy!

Listen on Spotify

50. Lifehouse – “Only You’re the One”

A very different band today than when they started over a decade ago, Lifehouse continues to churn out solid music. On their newest album, Almeria, the best track is “Only You’re the One”, building out of lusher instrumentation than we’re used to, but with the rousing chorus Lifehouse fans have long loved.

49. DIIV – “Doused”

Sit back and enjoy the rush of this fast-paced track, featuring some of the best guitar work of the year. Somewhere in the background are hazy, dark vocals. It all sets a unique mood unlike anything else in 2012.

48. Jack White – “Love Interruption”

The White Stripes may be no more, but Jack White’s unique style still hits our ears on tracks like “Love Interruption”. Drawing from older Americana and modern rock, yet featuring what sounds to be a clarinet of all things, this track brings together everything we already love about Jack.

47. Grimes – “Oblivion”

In a year dominated by moody electronics and bedroom synth experimentation, artists like Grimes received a lot of attention. The style won’t dominate my Top 50 like it might around the rest of the interweb, but I was thrilled to find Grimes’ “Oblivion”, which brings a touch of melody to the genre.

46. Regina Spektor – “All the Rowboats”

Buried within Regina Spektor’s highly disappointing 2012 album is “All the Rowboats”, a true diamond in the rough. Regina, forever quirky, piano-based, and lyrically wonderful, amps up her artistry to another level here: the piano is still present but it’s dark and ominous, and it’s joined by chamber vocals and a booming drum kit. Typical Regina Spektor lyrical content—in this case pity for museum artifacts—has never sounded quite like this.

45. Craig Finn – “Rented Room”

The first solo album from personal hero and Hold Steady frontman Craig Finn played a little slow and uneven, but towards the backend of the album you’ll find “Rented Room”. This is a song that showcases Finn’s mastery as a storyteller of the down-on-their-luck or even the typical. The scenes: bars, cheap hotel rooms, front lawns, and heartbreaking breakups. Finn’s brand of American rock has always been underappreciated, and “Rented Room” gives you another reason to know and love his work.

44. The Antlers – “Crest”

You can probably accuse me of believing The Antlers can do no wrong. I gushed about their debut album gushed about their second album , and now I give you a song from their little 2012 EP. “Crest” sounds much like other Antlers songs, putting impassioned vocals of hazy electronics. But “Crest” also takes us back a few decades with an ever-present horn section, harkening back to some kind of old school detective show.

43. Animal Kingdom – “Get Away With It”

British alt rockers Animal Kingdom put out an album heavy on influences from British predecessors, which might make them unoriginal, but it certainly doesn’t make them bad. “Get Away With It” makes some great use of guitar, synth, and reverb-y vocals to put together a track that will stick in your head for days.

42. The xx – “Angels”

No one makes moody night-driving music quite like The xx do. “Angels”, the best track on The xx’s 2012 album, is minimalist in the best of ways, striking a chord of emotion over an unimposing electronic backdrop.

41. Beach House – “Wild”

Beach House’s heralded new album features some outstanding tracks, but no moment grabs me more than when the amazing and simple guitar kicks in at the beginning of “Wild”. The guitar and beat alone are enough to make an amazing song, but there’s more here than just that.

40. Purity Ring – “Odebear”

I was slow to like Purity Ring, which is probably a weblog favorite to get awarded album of the year. Purity Ring, like Grimes, is highly electronic and experimental. It might not hit you at first, but if you’re like me it takes a good pair of headphones, some darkness, and a couple listens, then you won’t be able to get “Odebear” out of your mind.

39. Patrick Watson – “Lighthouse”

If you’re in the right mood, Patrick Watson can strike you right to the core. His voice is packed full of feeling despite his hushed nature, and his music can be entrancing. “Lighthouse” makes me want to help make a movie just so I can find the critical scene to feature it in.

38. Matchbox Twenty – “Sleeping at the Wheel”

Probably not the typical entry into a blog that focuses on indie and alternative rock, but I’ve always pledged to try and show you songs that you will like, not just songs that have “cred”. Rob Thomas and his band came back with a new album this year that won’t blow your socks off, but with plenty of very good songs. The best of these is “Sleeping at the Wheel” that features all the things Thomas is best at: heartfelt vocals and pure melody. It might take you back to 1999, but you’ll still enjoy it today.

37. POP ETC – “Speak Up”

The band formerly known as The Morning Benders lend their talents to once-again-surprisingly-amazing Twilight Soundtrack. This is the kind of track I love in indie rock. It has all the elements of catchiness and pleasantness that you might like, but it is also distinctly different thanks to some interesting instrumentation.

36. Lana Del Rey – “Off to the Races”

No doubt the debut album from Lana Del Rey set the blogosphere on fire, as the haters and lovers converged on each other. Part of this is because some indie critics felt duped, having already declared their love of lead single “Video Games”, there was then extensive backtracking when Lana’s past, persona, and studio production were a whole lot closer to Katy Perry-style pop than anything else. In the end her album was decidedly average, neither as bad or as good as anyone claimed. But within the album is “Off to the Races”, a driving track that showcases her glammed-up bad girl vibe better than any other. Alternating between deeper, sultry verses and high voiced faked innocence in the chorus, Lana shows some serious skills.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

2012 Ultimate Music Megapost: Top 15 Albums of the Year

In a year powered by singles and not by albums, a few albums stood above the crowd. The following list is highlighted by an exceptional top three. In my mind, everyone should own Grizzly Bear, The Shins, and Passion Pit’s new albums. These are the three albums that dominated my ears this year. But there was still plenty more. Yeasayer’s album wasn’t a critical darling, but I thought the critics were wrong. The year had some exceptional indie folk albums as well, ranging from the Swedish sister duo of First Aid Kit to up-and-coming Fresno duo Amarante to orchestral Patrick Watson. Some past favorites returned to the list, with both The Killers and Snow Patrol putting out some solid albums, Freelance Whales adding depth to their indie pop, and Spoon’s Britt Daniels returning with The Divine Fits. For fans of the more upbeat side of things, Walk to Moon is raucous fun, Ellie Goulding has the pop gems, and Moonface has the darker side. And for something completely different don’t forget to check out alternative R&B experimentalist Frank Ocean, a near unanimous Best of the Year selection. Hope you enjoy and if you do or don’t, let me know!

1. Grizzly Bear – “Shields”

grizzly

One of those rare albums where every song ranges from very good to great, and each track flows impeccably from beginning to end. “Shields” builds upon the rousing success of “Veckatimest”, keeping the elements that made it one of the decade’s best, but expanding it enough to not sound like a copycat. Songs like “Yet Again”, “Simple Answer”, and “Gun-Shy” only scratch the surface of a flawless album.

2. The Shins – “Port of Morrow”

Yet to make even an average album, The Shins do it again on “Port of Morrow”, featuring one of their all-time best songs with “Simple Song”. But the new-look Shins don’t stop there, continuing to branch into a lusher sound that combines the best elements of their early lo-fi days and James Mercer’s Broken Bells side project into one fantastic product. Check out “Rifle’s Spiral”, “September”, and “40 Mark Strasse” as well.

3. Passion Pit – “Gossamer”

Passion Pit’s successful debut album may contained a couple memorable, best-of-the-year tracks, but it’s on “Gossamer” that they really put together a complete album front-to-back. It doesn’t stop at the rushing “Take a Walk” either. Slow mover “Constant Conversations”, melodic “Love is Greed”, and swarming “It’s Not My Fault, I’m Happy” showcase diverse abilities and highlight a great album.

4. Yeasayer – “Fragrant World”

I was truly surprised by the lackluster reception Yeasayer’s third album received. With songs like “Fingers Never Bleed” showing an amazing handle on combining experimental alt rock with melody, catchy tracks like “Blue Paper”, and more out-there songs like “Henrietta” and “Folk Hero Schtick”, what’s not to like?

5. Freelance Whales – “Diluvia”

Freelance Whales’ debut album was hailed as sensitive indie rock, and to an extent some of the lyrics did deserve some cheesy eye rolls, but overall there was decided potential contained in some of the tracks I featured in my Top 50 of the year. Now with “Diluvia” they take a different turn, and they’re better for it. The changes are evident: the hazy undertones on “Follow Through” and the more prominent use of Doris Cellar on vocals in songs like “Winter Seeds”. Their undeniable grasp on melodic indie rock is still here, but with an increased handle on musicianship.

6. First Aid Kit – “The Lion’s Roar”

I’ll never understand how First Aid Kit, a Swedish sister duo, can release the best American folk album of the year, but they did, and that’s a fact (or an opinion said declaratively…). Songs like “The Lion’s Roar” and “Emmylou” are stunning in both their ability to sink under your skin and their grasp of Americana. Not only is this the most surprising album to me this year, it’s one of the best.

7. Walk the Moon – “Walk the Moon”

If you want this year’s Foster the People—a fun-loving, Summer-friendly, indie pop band—look no further than the thoroughly enjoyable Walk the Moon. They got a little attention with “Anna Sun” depending on where you look, but that just scratches the surface. “I Can Lift a Car”, “Jenny”, and “Lisa Baby” are the strongest songs on a peppy, consistent, and downright fun album.

8. Ellie Goulding – “Halycon”

In a year where Gotye and fun. found pop success with alternative styles, Ellie Goulding represents the pop artist that became a little trendy on the indie and alternative circles. As one of those people touting her to my friends, I vouch that Halycon offers some amazing reasons to give her a chance. “My Blood” is one of the year’s best tracks, “Hanging On” presents a stellar cover of one of the year’s best songs, and hazy “Don’t Say a Word” is just one example of how Goulding is just making amazing music with all the catchy advantages of pop.

9. Moonface – “With Siinai: Heartbreaking Bravery”

Moonface, the newest project of Spencer Krug of Wolf Parade and Sunset Rubdown pseudo-fame, emerges with an album unlike anything else 2012 has seen. The songs combine the darkness of bands like Interpol with a rush of prog-influenced rock. What really stands out to me is the raw emotion and upwardly-mobile pace of the songs. Tracks like “Yesterday’s Fire” build and build until they explode, while songs like “Quickfire, I Tried” introduce a simple piano over the darkness. In a year that featured, in my opinion, an overabundance of electronic experimentation and muted emotion, Moonface doesn’t hold back, and as listeners we’re better for it.

10. Snow Patrol – “Fallen Empires”

You know what former alternative rock darling churned out a nearly-ignored album, consistently good front-to-back? That would Snow Patrol, composers of four straight great records, but unfortunately too well known for their sappy “Chasing Cars” song. Songs like “Called Out in the Dark” will satisfy any fan of British alt rock and “This Isn’t Everything You Are” showcases Snow Patrol’s true expertise: the soaring anthem. Fans of the more sensitive side of Snow Patrol can be happy too, as “New York” is one their best.

11. Divine Fits – “A Thing Called Divine Fits”

It’s no surprise to me that anything featuring Spoon’s Britt Daniel will make my year-end list. Spoon has been the most criminally underrated bands of the last decade, and frontman Daniels brings his talents to Divine Fits, a dual side project with Wolf Parade’s Dan Boeckner. The album plays a little bit too much like an interchange between Spoon and Wolf Parade instead of a collaboration, but they blend wonderfully on “Neapolitans” and “My Love is Real”, and Daniel flaunts his amazing talents on “Flaggin’ a Ride”, “Salton Sea”, and “Would That Be Nice?”, which would fit on any great Spoon record.

12. Amarante – “Fingertips That Would Dare Paint Ghosts on Dirt”

If you have a soft spot for inventive indie folk, 2012’s version of Mimicking Birds is Amarante, a still-very-small duo from Fresno (so small they send you a thank you for buying their album on their site). I stumbled upon their song “No Return” from a previous EP and bought their new album within 10 minutes. If you do the same you won’t be disappointed. “Snow Storm” is a study is setting a season and a mood, while “Lovers Song” will be stuck in your mind all day. You can call it study music or call it cocoa by the fire music. You get the idea. If that’s your kind of music you can’t go wrong here.

13. Frank Ocean – “Channel Orange”

I’ve read this album get called “alternative R&B”, which might explain the massive critical reception for Ocean’s second album, and first album to get the full studio treatment. What this album lacks in thrilling tracks—“Thinkin Bout You” and “Pyramids” being the exceptions—it makes up for by being a coalescent whole. Frank Ocean is R&B at heart and has ties to shock hip-hop group OFWGKTA, but he’s not afraid to go all experimental and drop 10 minute masterpieces like “Pyramids”.

14. The Killers – “Battle Born”

Few albums have grown on me this year quite like “Battle Born”, the fourth major release from The Killers. Repeated listens and a willingness to not expect Hot Fuss Pt. 2 are rewarded with adept ballads like “The Way it Was” and old school throwbacks like “A Matter of Time”. There’s more here than meets the ear immediately though. “Deadlines and Commitments” reveals itself over time as a unique hit, and “Runaways” and “Be Still” both have the kind of depth of emotion that Brandon Flowers excels at.

15. Patrick Watson – “Adventures in Your Own Background”

At times it feels as though Patrick Watson is as much a composer as he is a folk artists. Perhaps folk at heart, Watson is not afraid to unleash symphonic instrumentation or a perfectly placed horn into his songs, such as at the end of the stunning title track “Adventures in Your Own Background”. The album isn’t so much a collection of songs as it is an absolute mastering of mood. “Lighthouse” is half folk wonderment and half sensitive Oscar-caliber movie soundtrack material. “Step Out For a While” swirls behind its percussion, while “Noisy Sunday” and “Quiet Crowd” are perfect for a rainy day. This is a beautifully put together album.

Honorable Mentions (in a general, not well thought out order):

Check Out the Best New Old Songs of the Year

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

2012 Ultimate Music Megapost: The Top Ten New Old Songs of the Year

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Welcome to the beginning of my favorite thing about blogging: the annual (6th annual! Yikes.) Ultimate Music Megapost. In previous years I’ve done an introductory post explaining my basic guidelines, rules, and limitations of the list. Instead of doing that this year, I’ll keep it pretty brief. This particular post reflects one of the big disclaimers I always put out there: I’m not a professional, I’m an amateur. I don’t get handed free music and get to listen to it as a job, so sometimes I miss things. And with that in mind, here are some amazing non-2012 songs that would have made lists if I were a proper music reviewer!

Click to listen on Spotify: http://open.spotify.com/user/derubino/playlist/2QruRnonflCSFmcTmQU73c 

1. Young the Giant – “Apartment”

If I were to rank this song against this year’s tracks, I’d have it at #2 overall. But chalk it up to the strength of 2011 that even some of the best songs I find this year come from the previous year.

2. Nerves Junior – “Champagne & Peaches”

Nerves Junior was a one of those year-end list discoveries I made on another blog, but did get into until I was holed up in Amish Country in Ohio, listening to this song in the snow.

3. Republic Tigers – “Merrymake it With Me”

Republic Tigers had some great songs on a single CD a few year ago. I went to check what happened to them and found this gem on a 2011 EP.

4. Kurt Vile – “Society is My Friend”

Kurt Vile got a lot of attention in 2011 for “Jesus Fever”, which is also a great song. But it’s “Society is My Friend” that really won me over.

5. Radiohead – “Staircase”

Always good to get Radiohead onto these lists, right? I didn’t get to Radiohead’s release of “Staircase” until after the New Year, but it soundtracked many a cold winter day in Ohio earlier this year.

6. Cinematic Orchestra ft. Patrick Watson – “To Build a Home”

“To Build a Home” caught my attention in a movie trailer, and I just had to find out who was responsible. This year my 2012 list will feature Patrick Watson’s new album, but this one is how he got my attention.

7. Great Lake Swimmers – “Moving Pictures Silent Films”

Great Lake Swimmers have dreamy folk down to a science, and this might be their best song ever, but I didn’t get to it till this year.

8. Ryan Adams – “Lucky Now”

I overall couldn’t get into Ryan Adams’ 2011 album, but I loved everything about “Lucky Now”

9. You Won’t – “Three Car Garage”

All I knew about You Won’t in 2011 was how much I loved the song “Television”. This year I discovered “Three Car Garage”.

10. The Lonely Forest – “Coyote”

Just a fun jam.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Reevaluating Music in 2011

I don’t really know why I wrote this blog other than to get some of my thoughts out there. I write these lists and I take them seriously, and it means a lot to me that some of you take them seriously too, but sometimes I really do look back and wonder how I could rank things the way I did, and then I feel like I’m lying if I don’t correct them. Anyhow, the 2012 list is a nightly project now, and I hope you all enjoy it and find something that sticks with you for years to come.

change-my-mind-felipe-valdiviesoAs I started putting together my 2012 list, a long process in itself, I stumbled back upon my 2011 list. It’s really amazing what a year can do. Some songs you can hear a song and immediately love it, only to never listen to it a year later. Sometimes a song much lower on the list transforms into a song that will stick with you for a long time. With that in mind, a couple of things that came to mind about my Best of 2011 post:

--Wow, 2011 was a ridiculously good year for music. 2012 pales in comparison. Basically my whole top ten albums here would place in the top 3 or 4 this year.

--Where I really missed was on M83. I don’t listen to a whole lot of albums like Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming, and I probably didn’t recognize exactly how amazing the album was. Sure I gave it high marks, but that album has grown and grown on me, and I’m pretty sure it should have been #3 last year when I look back. Giving it 3.5 stars was a bad move by me. I’d give it 4.5 if I were to reevaluate it today. Similarly I missed on the song “Steve McQueen”, a song I recognized as great enough to put it at #20 for the year. Now I have it as a five star song. Context: the same song I called #20 of 2011 alone, I now consider one of the best 81 songs of all time.

--Way down at #31 was a song called “Television” by You Won’t. That song has grown tremendously on me as well, and I would put it much closer to the top 10. I still have it in regular rotation.

--NEEDTOBREATHE’s “White Fences” was also a song that continues heavy in my rotation, and I had it #33 below a lot of songs it’s better than.

--One song I’d move would be Death Cab for Cutie’s “You Are a Tourist” at #13. I still like the song, but it’s staying power wasn’t there. I barely touch that whole album, really.

See you for the 2012 posts!

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Animal Kingdom – “The Looking Away”

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Upon hearing the first notes of Animal Kingdom’s album a couple things become clear: first, they are obviously British, and second, they have clear influences that come out of British alternative rock in the last decade that followed Radiohead. And somewhere between Radiohead, The Verve, and Coldplay, in a spot occupied by no-hit bands like Thirteen Senses, Embrace, and even Keane to an extent, sits Animal Kingdom. And much like all the latter bands, Animal Kingdom is quite capable of making a heckuva song, yet lacks a special hit and consistency.

This album is frontloaded, which is both an insult to the back half of the album and a full up compliment to the outstanding first few tracks. “The Wave” rides some excellent percussion work and a catchy chorus. The album’s strongest song “Get Away With It” uses a bit of a gritty synth groove and a strong falsetto. “Strange Attractor” keeps the strong tracks going, and provides the albums best single moment (“It only comes in waaaves!”), before the chorus swells like some of the better upbeat Coldplay songs out there (longtime readers know I consider Coldplay a great band, unlike many of my fellow indie bloggers). The biggest surprise of the album for me the first time was listening to “Straw Man”, a dreamier, softer piece, about as British as British can be. But it’s executed exceptionally well, serving to pull together such a good assortment of influences. Sure it’s probably just Radiohead’s “Codex” and “No Surprises” smashed together and sung by The Verve, but it’s your choice whether to damn them for this or just enjoy, because those are all good things.

The drawback of the album is that after “Straw Man”, only “White Sparks” is really memorable to any extent. A hazy beginning, breaks into a more uplifting chorus. It’s sonically interesting and has a forward-moving pace. An excellent track, but unfortunately surrounded a back half of pretty-okay-yet-ultimately-forgettable tracks. Still, if British alternative rock is your thing (it’s mine, so your not alone), Animal Kingdom is definitely worth a look.

Ellie Goulding – “Halycon”

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★1/2

I wish I could have a conversation over coffee with Ellie Goulding just to ask her about how she fits into the genres of world. Here is an artist that has seen her song “Lights” reach #2 in the US and has recently opened for Katy Perry, not exactly the recipe for hipster cred. Yet somehow she manages to find a foothold of popularity with people who are probably a whole lot closer to liking Cat Power and Joanna Newson than they are to liking Katy Perry or Demi Lovato. Her choice of internet covers? Active Child and The Weeknd of all bands. I reviewed Ellie Goulding’s debut album earlier this year, my review coming about as late as Ellie’s US popularity. I gave her three stars and a thumbs up.

So now Ellie releases the perfectly-timed “Halycon”. I guess the major benefit of an album taking a couple years to catch on is having new material ready the instant your fans are hungry for more. And the good news? Ellie seems determined not be categorized, and “Halycon” is actually a better album than “Lights”. Make no mistake: Ellie Goulding is primarily a pop artist making pop songs for pop radio. However, give it a chance ye naysayers, and you too may fall in love. Album opener “Don’t Say a Word” rises slowly out of echo chamber vocals and soft electronics to suddenly break forth, displaying Goulding’s vocal abilities over sleek production values. The song is hardly poppy at all. “My Blood”, the album’s best track, displays Goulding’s skills the best. A bursting chorus, a catchy hook, but never so syrupy sweet or predictable enough to get lumped in with her contemporaries. Songs like electronically-influenced “Anything Could Happen”, and “Only You” seem closer to Passion Pit, and if you prefer your indie influences to be more than just inferred there’s also the cover of Active Child’s “Hanging On”. Active Child? Really? A cynic would say it’s a desperate pander to blogosphere, except she executes it so well.

There’s also the emotional touch on “Explosions”, full of string and piano and ready for a crucial scene in a TV drama. Yet something about Goulding’s voice keeps it from crossing a line. “Atlantis” takes the Passion Pit element and mixes it with one part Enya. Album closer “Dead in the Water” is a dreamy closer, meandering close to nowhere while remaining beautiful, a fitting finale to a surprising album.

I’m not crowning Ellie Goulding. Three and a half stars is appropriate. But boy if you are one of my readers who is more accepting of radio pop music, I don’t know how you couldn’t enjoy Goulding’s creative take on it. I’ve come to accept that my version of Radiohead-Shins-Spoon-Bon Iver type music will never be radio-loved, but if Ellie Goulding can rule the pop charts then radio will be a better place.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Some Saturday Morning Tracks

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Saturday’s are usually my days to catch up on music reviews and recommendations, and since I’ve come down with the flu, I expect this Saturday to be particularly productive. I want to start by recommending a couple songs that may have flown under the radar or are not part of overall album reviews:

Royal Teeth – “Wild”

Wasn’t all that impressed with their whole EP, but this single track shows a whole lot of promise and I’ll definitely be checking out their debut album whenever it comes out.

The Lumineers – “Ho Hey”

It’s simple and interesting all at the same time, and it also features a mandolin, so what’s not to like?

Amarante – “No Return”

A true indie pick. Found this one sifting through a bunch of blogs and thought I’d share.

Lana Del Rey – “Ride”

A lightning rod of criticism earlier in the year, Lana returns with “Ride”, and it would have been a contender for best track on her album.

Sufjan Stevens – “Silver and Gold”

Sufjan is about to release a massive Christmas collection that will be overwhelming to even the most dedicated fan. But his first single gives reason to pay attention.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

M83 Release New “Steve McQueen” Video

New video from one of 2011’s very best songs. The louder the better.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Grizzly Bear – “Shields”

grizzly

The only reason I’ve delayed on this review is because I wanted to make sure that it’s as good as I initially thought it was. My conclusion? It’s better.

Grizzly Bear is the biggest music regret of my life. I hadn’t yet discovered Veckatimest a few of years ago. While attending a festival the heat caused my wife and I to head to the shaded comedy tent instead of trying out Grizzly Bear. Later that year Veckatimest was one of my favorite albums of the year, and I didn’t attend a concert that was happening a thousand feet away. Shameful. It hurt because Veckatimest was so good. And Shields? Shields might be even better. As the days go by I find myself enjoying this album more with every listen. In what I call a good problem, it’s given me another serious candidate for album of the year.

Grizzly Bear benefits from an important great decision. Their sound is a little more lush, a little different, but largely the same in all the important ways. In other words, just different enough to not be a copy cat, and just the same enough to maintain everything that made Veckatimest one of the decade’s best albums. It’s the perfect amount of differentiation. The amazing chorus of “A Simple Answer” is the perfect example. A simple beginning followed by a swarming chorus, bolstered by a subtle whistle of electronics and guitar. Instead of ending the song, “A Simple Answer” enters an impassioned echo over piano. It’s six minutes of bliss, deeper and lusher than anything Grizzly Bear has written. Moreover, it’s not even a shoe-in for the best track. There’s also “Yet Again”, one of the most accessible tracks of their career, emotionally moving and sincere, containing a perfect mix of listenability and fantastically interesting music. “Gun-Shy” introduces something fairly simple—a dreamy, psychadelic guitar touch straight out of The Verve or War on Drugs—and it serves as the underpinning for the night-driving song of the year. “Sleeping Ute” and “Speak in Rounds” are in the mold of classic Grizzly Bear, but spare no punches themselves. “Half Gate” is sweeping. Album closer “Sun in Your Eyes”, the seven minute long, is the perfect concluding crescendo to a nearly perfect album, devoid of anything sub-par tracks.

Buy it.

Animal Collective – “Centipede Hz”

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To quote Pitchfork’s positive review, Centipede Hz “feels like someone throwing a burrito on your windshield” and Animal Collective “delivered a cluttered, abrasive album”. And these are compliments, apparently. Sorry folks, but as your resident music filter and recommender, take caution.

Now I understand how divided people are over Animal Collective. They seem to take a little thrill over being divisive. Their career trajectory let to some additional melodic elements on their breakthrough album Merriweather Post Pavilion. So yes, I’m one of those fans who adored “My Girls”, who thinks that “Summertime Clothes” is great, and “In the Flowers” was one of the best album openers he’s heard. I see the value in Animal Collective’s artistry and unique elements, but I do not see the value in noise and chaos for noise and chaos’ sake. On Merriweather Post Pavilion the industrial, glitchy elements served as a backdrop to the forefront melody on the best tracks. On Centipede Hz, the melody can’t escape from underneath the noise.

Only a couple of times is the album redeemed. The ever-present noise shifts to playing second fiddle to the songs on tracks like “Applesauce”, “Pulleys”, and “New Town Burnout”, but even the crescendo of noise almost takes over the latter by the end. For the most part the clutter that overwhelms the beginning of the album—the okay “Moonjock” and disaster “Today’s Supernatural”—persists in only slightly less obtrusive ways throughout. “Wide Eyed”? “Monkey Riches”? Painful. The unfortunate part is that interesting, developed, possibly good melodies exist like giant teases beneath the clanks.

There are two, yes, two, good songs on this album worth hearing. “Pulleys” grows out of its industrial base and develops into an actual song. “Applesauce” is by far the best song, using noise to contribute to the unique quality of the song without self-destructing.

I’m pretty tolerant of experimentalism and bands that want to try different approaches. Unfortunately Animal Collective seems determined to be so different that they turn their backs on what brought them new fans. And if that’s the case, then as one of those new fans who actually enjoys a touch of sonic pleasure instead of having chaos blasted into my earholes in the name of experimentalism, then their approach worked. And thus the rating.

First Aid Kit – “The Lion’s Roar”

Basic CMYK

★1/2

I can’t think of more different band to follow Muse and The Killers in these reviews. First Aid Kit are a sister duo from Sweden playing their own brand of indie folk and grasping the feeling of Americana better than many Americans can dream of. They made it big on the internet a few years back for their outstanding cover of Fleet Foxes, the Northwest’s premiere woodsy folk band. Now they have the distinction of being a recent surprise addition to my year’s favorite album list.

The album starts strong with the driving “The Lion’s Roar”, showcasing harmonies and a knack for instrumentation beyond simple folk. Then comes the album’s darling, and my personal reason for digging into the album as a whole: “Emmylou”. I’d say don’t ask me to explain it, but this is a blog, so I’m obligated to attempt. Featuring steel guitar, an irresistible melody, perfect harmonies, and the most sentimental pack of lyrics you’ve ever heard, “Emmylou” strikes at the core. Here’s a song that takes all the best elements of country and Americana and wraps it in a perfect package, and it comes from a pair of girls from Scandinavia. It’s amazing really. Two songs into the album, and it’s two of the year’s best.

The rest of the album stands well on its own as well. “In the Hearts of Men” has a throwback 70’s style and verges on syrupy sweet, but the girls keep it from going to far. Songs like “To a Poet” are especially moving and display the girls’ vocal ranges. Influences from bands like Fleet Foxes are especially present songs like this one.

To be frank, this won’t be an album for everyone. This is for fans of indie folk bands like Fleet Foxes or even Of Monsters and Men. Maybe Mumford & Sons to a degree. But if that’s your style then there’s not much to dislike here. My only complaint, since it’s in the video below, is why in the world a beautiful song like “Emmylou” with lyrics like “Well the bitter winds are coming, and I’m already missing the summer, Stockholm’s cold, but I’ve been told I was born to endure this kind of weather” would make their video set in the desert of Joshua Tree National Park? Makes no sense to me. Amazing song though.

The Killers – “Battle Born”

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I wrestled with this album, much like I’ve wrestled with every Killers album since Hot Fuss. You see, I, like maybe you, and many many other people consider Hot Fuss to be an album of greatness. Alternative rock near its best. A collection of masterpieces of synth-driven rock. There was “Somebody Told Me”. And “Mr. Brightside”. Oh, and “Jenny Was a Friend of Mine”, “Smile Like You Mean It”, and “On Top”. Same band! Same album! And a debut album!

Then came Sam’s Town, an album I probably underrated at the time. The album was Springsteen-y and different. Still good, but not as good. And then Day & Age, a slicker, easy-on-the-guitar album, clearly inferior to anything Brandon Flowers and company had ever done. Brandon Flowers then branched out on his own with Flamingo. And it’s actually Flamingo where you’ll find the most similarity to “Battle Born”, with the Vegas-influenced glitz and glamour meeting synth rock.

So what to make of this album? Well, it’s probably about time to give up hope that Hot Fuss Part 2 is ever coming. So instead I’m interested in judging Battle Born on its own merits, and in that sense it’s actually pretty good. Better than Day & Age by a good margin, and maybe a step below Sam’s Town. The Springsteen vibe is still present, especially on songs like “Runaways”, where the characters and storytelling will strike a chord with some. Songs like “The Way it Is” bring Vegas and Nevada to the frontlines, with mentions of Esmerelda County and Elvis. But when the chorus breaks in it’s a top tier Killers song. “Here With Me”, straight out of another decade, is the kind of song you could have never seen Flowers write in the “Somebody Told Me” days, but its chalk full of heart and sincerity. “A Matter of Time” might actually be the closest thing to old school Killers. On this song Flowers’ voice revert a little closer to the grittier style of the early album. It’s a welcome throwback.

A few more interesting tracks spring up as well. “Deadlines and Commitments”, while definitely leaning more on Flowers’ individual style, has a distinctive chorus and catchy melody. “Miss Atomic Bomb” has been presented as a sequel of sorts to “Mr. Brightside”. Lyrically, Killers fan will notice that “Mr. Brightside” himself actually makes an appearance in the song: in Mr. Brightside the protagonist sings “Open up my eager eyes, ‘cause I’m Mr. Brightside”, while in “Miss Atomic Bomb” he sings “I was new in town, the boy with the eager eyes”. It’s a clever touch by Flowers, presenting dedicated fans with a link to the past.

The weakness of the album is the second act. Songs like “The Rising Tide”, “Heart of a Girl”, and “From Here on Out” never take off. Only “Be Still”, a softer song with the uplifting line “don’t break, character” bolstering the chorus is the back end’s only highlight. Still though, this album ends up being pleasantly surprising given the career trajectory of The Killers, once a top favorite band in college and now relegated to “pretty okay” status. This is not an earth-shattering album, but there’s plenty here to enjoy, especially from the likes of “The Way it Was” and “A Matter of Time”.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Muse – “The 2nd Law”

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★1/2

Muse’s fifth album ends with the most unpredictable sequence of Muse  songs ever created, and for an over-the-top band like Muse, this is probably a good thing. Muse, which has seemingly always thrived on being huge and towing the line between brilliant and ridiculous, return with an album that contains, amongst other things: dubstep, Russian choir chants, psychedelic guitars, two songs by the bassist, two songs featuring apocalyptic news audio, and a four song sequence in which Matthew Bellamy’s only appearance is his trademark wail. And that doesn’t even count the Olympic theme song.

It’s starts about as Muse as Muse can be: “Supremacy” is full force energy, blending rock, symphonic strings, and Broadway bravado. Rising out of snare drum percussion Bellamy draws out the word “faaaaantasy” straight out of Phantom of the Opera before the song goes full on prog rock. It’s a genius first song and would have been great on any Muse album throughout their illustrious yet downward trending career. The second song, “Madness”, is nothing at all like “Supremacy”, instead softly churning over an electro groove until Bellamy breaks forward with an impassioned “I need your love!!!” as the song grows. “Panic Station”, although inferior to the opening two tracks, still packs a pretty good dance-ish punch over a sick bass line.

And then comes “Prelude”. This is Muse. Of course there’s a prelude. And naturally it’s the fourth song and not the first. Whether you care about it or not will strictly depend on whether or not you have always fancied the symphonic elements of Muse (I have). But you sure can’t miss what it leads into: the just absurd, ridiculous, “is it so absurd and ridiculous that I like it?” song “Survival”, known best for being the Olympic theme song. This is the song that features Russian men’s choir chanting and Bellamy declaring “It’s a race!! And I’m gonna win!!!”. It toes a fine line between stupid and awesome, but the wry smile on my face as I listen to it has me leaning towards liking.

The more “normal” sequence of the album comprises the next four tracks, with “Follow Me” being the most forgettable of the bunch. “Animals” gives ammunition to the Muse-are-just-subpar-Radiohead-copycats crowd, but it’s hard not to enjoy the song sonically, with some fantastic psychedelic guitar work tepidly stringing through the song. It’s some of the best guitar from Muse in my memory. It makes me forgive the noise at the end. Then comes “Explorers” and “Big Freeze”, the two most typical Muse songs on the album.

Still, years of training did not prepare me for the final four song sequence batch of this album. It starts with a dreamy number, “Save Me”, voiced by Chris Wolstenholme, the band’s longtime bassist. Perhaps surprisingly, the song is outstanding, and benefits from some great guitar work as well, particularly near the end. Genre-wise, it’s probably closer to something you’ll get when a mainstream rock band like Breaking Benjamin goes “soft”. Again surprisingly, this is not the last song fronted by Wolstenholme, who also helms the lesser “Liquid State”. The last two songs are then essentially instrumentals, but with their own touch. It starts with “The 2nd Law: Unsustainable”, the internet-famous Muse-does-dubstep track. It’s hard to deny the song’s power, and I’ve pushed my car’s volume with it already. It features Bellamy’s only appearance in the last four tracks, when he is heard wailing over the song’s crescendo. The final track, then, is “The 2nd Law: Isolated System”, a more classic Muse symphonic effort, mixing elements of ambient music, news reports, and strings into a capable closer to an odd album.

So how do you rate an album like this? Purely on individual song ratings the album actually doesn’t stack up that well to other Muse albums, but it’s hard to ignore that the album is abundantly interesting and entertaining as a coalescent whole, and that’s the album’s real strength. From the first note of “Supremacy” to the final note of “The 2nd Law: Isolated System”, it’s difficult to stop listening, and that’s a major plus.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Divine Fits – “A Thing Called Divine Fits”

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If you’ve never heard of Divine Fits, you may have heard of their band members. Divine Fits exists as the side project of Spoon’s Britt Daniel and Wolf Parade’s Dan Boeckner. This represents an interesting preconception for me: over the years I have professed an undying affection for Spoon, but I’ve never really been able to get into Wolf Parade. And as far as the album goes, it’s hard to get past these preconceptions. On songs like “Would That Not Be Nice?”, where the songs sound much more like a slightly more electro-ed Spoon, I find myself enjoying them very much. “The Salton Sea” could have fit nicely onto some of Spoon’s very best albums, and “Shivers” and “Like Ice Cream” don’t really sound any different from Spoon at all. Heck, “Flaggin’ a Ride”, the album’s best song, channels Spoon almost exclusively, and it’s purely excellent and catchy. I wonder if Spoon’s other band members heard this one and though “dang, did you just give away the best song on our next album?”. 

Finding the parts where Wolf Parade and Spoon collide into pure Divine Fits is difficult. On “My Love is Real” you get what is essentially a Wolf Parade song, but with a backbeat that sounds a little more like Spoon. Only on the final song, “Neopolitans”, does it feel like the talents of the band’s are really combined, and the song comes off good but not great.

Easy summary: “Flaggin’ a Ride” necessary for all, “The Salton Sea” and “Would That Not Be Nice?” necessary for Spoon fans, and the rest of it makes for an interesting and intriguing add to your music collection if you already fancy Spoon and Wolf Parade.

Band of Horses – “Mirage Rock”

boh

★1/2

Always important to frame the context: Band of Horses are undoubtedly one of my very favorite bands in the world. Just the other night How I Met Your Mother used their song “Funeral” during a crucial emotional scene, and it struck a chord in me. Their sophomore album is as elite as elite gets. During one streak in the first half of the album they have three straight five star songs. I only have 83 five star songs in a collection of 11,448 songs. Their third album was amazing as well. So when I describe the fourth Band of Horses album as being almost saddeningly disappointing, both you and I need to be aware of what I hoped this album would be. This is an album where I have the release date written on a post-it note, where I buy it the second it’s available for download, and where I take a trip to Starbucks just to listen. And it’s done by a band that I’ve taken a picture with. I even own a shirt.

This is why rating this album is so hard. Am I being overly judgmental? Because yes, there are some great songs here. “Slow Cruel Hands of Time”, a wistful, nostalgic journey, would be stellar on any album. “Heartbreak on the 101”, featuring some lower register vocals from lead singer Ben Bridwell, emerges and soars. “Shut-in Tourist” is moving and introspective, if not self-damning, allowing self-pity and depression to overwhelm to the point where a foreign visitor won’t even leave the room. “Long Vows” and the sensitive steel guitar are about as country as BoH has gotten over the years, channeling some of the best of My Morning Jacket’s softest work.

But is that it? That’s just four songs. What remains, unfortunately, sputters between average and even two one-star songs, unprecedented by Band of Horses. It’s hard to imagine not skipping “Electric Music” or “A Little Biblical”. “Dumpster World” is mostly confusing, starting lounge-y and soft, but then genre-shifting to an unpleasant and noisy second half. The song, to it’s credit, is memorable even if not great. The same can’t be said for “How to Live”, “Knock Knock”, and the others. These are forgettable.

When my year-end list comes out, I’m certain it will contain some Band of Horses songs. Listen to the two below and you’ll have spent some quality time. But for the first time in their whole career I can’t find myself urging you to go out and spend money on the whole album. And that makes me literally sad.